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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 08/24/2011

Robots and the end of war as we know it


U.S. soldiers seeking to root out al-Qaeda and Taliban forces raid a dwelling near the villages of Sherkhankheyl, Marzak and Bobelkiel, in Afghanistan in March 2002. (Joe Raedle - REUTERS)

Rapid advances in robotics technology, combined with the need for innovative new technologies to combat insurgents on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, are turning robots and unmanned drones into the next hot area of military innovation. The most sophisticated of the new military bots weigh less than five pounds. Then there are others that can fit into your pocket, and be connected via a mesh network. That network gives them the ability to coordinate activities, such as detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or scouting out locations, in real-time as part of a robot swarm.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Army is now seeking to deploy thousands of these tiny military bots.

These miniature bots have the potential to transform the way the U.S. plans for — and fights — wars. Defense spending has meant the relentless scaling up of warfare for the past 50 years, with every new innovation resulting in advances that were more lethal and more destructive than their predecessors. The U.S. military was measured in terms of airplanes, warships and tanks. Entire nations embarked on misguided attempts to close the missile gap with the U.S. Meanwhile, defense budgets could not shrink because military hardware could not shrink. Innovation meant bigger, more powerful, and more lethal.

Technology, though, has redefined how we think about warfare. Intelligence and real-time data are now prized as highly as absolute destructive capacity. Miniature robots are one way to solve the military's "last mile" problem. Getting to Baghdad was easy, but the “last mile” — going door-to-door to root out insurgents cleverly disguised as normal civilians — is proving to be frustratingly difficult. Enter the Throwbot, a mini-robot that soldiers can lob into enemy locations, just as they’d throw a grenade.

Department of Defense and DARPA recognize the importance of robotics in guiding the future of military innovation. DARPA, in fact, has been a pioneer in the development of the driver-less car and other discoveries at the leading edge of robotics. The future of warfare rests with tiny pocket bots, unmanned surveillance drones the size of insects and cyber-hackers safely ensconced behind their computers, thousands of miles from the battlefront. One of the most striking photos from the successful raid on Osama Bin Laden by Navy SEALs was the scene of the government’s top brass, monitoring the attack from the White House.

We’ve reached a new era of warfare. Technology has made possible a radically new type of "shock and awe." The new “shock and awe” is the ability to shut down a nation’s infrastructure with a click of the mouse. It also entails having the ability to convince the enemy that you can monitor his or her every move from thousands of miles away without a single solder on the battlefield. It is the ability to send unmanned drones into enemy territory without risk of reprisal and the ability to go door-to-door in the most dangerous urban zones, supported by an intelligent robotic swarm.

The old military-industrial complex is a thing of the past. Instead, we have a new military-robotics complex, in which the defense and robotics sectors are combining to create a brave new era of unmanned warfare.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 08/24/2011

Categories:  Innovations, Dominic Basulto, Invention, Research, Technology

 
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